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How Essential Oils Are Made: Extraction Methods, Organic Ingredients, & More

Essential oils are concentrated extracts from plants that, in many cases, offer some benefit towards human health. These effects vary as do the quality and composition of many essential oils. Knowing how these aromatic compounds are made can help ensure you don’t become the sucker getting duped into shelling out cash for a product with inferior ingredients.

Introduction

Plants contain a wide array of compounds that offer nutritive and supportive benefits. They also contain many compounds that may do just the opposite. Proper care in creating essential oil requires is essential to producing a quality product.

This article isn’t meant to serve as a guide for making essential oils. Rather, I hope for it to help understand what separates the best essential oil brands from imitators trying to scheme a quick buck. First up, let’s talk about extraction methods!

Extraction Methods

Essential oils are liquids that contain isolated compounds from plants. Manufacturers must extract these compounds through any number of industrial techniques. Some are simple—some are more involved—but most are best suited for certain parts of plants. That is; one method may give a better extraction from roots while another from leaves. Below are several essential oil extraction methods.

Steam Distillation

Uses oil-infused steam to vaporize the volatile compounds from a plant. The heat and oils release compounds from the plant which are then cooled back into liquid form. This water + oil condensate is then separated to extract the oil which now contains the plant material. Steam distillation produces a purer extract at the expense of denaturing many natural constituents. Common for essential oils used only for fragrance.

Temperature: High

Water Distillation

This extraction method is identical to steam extraction but the plant or flowering bodies are submerged in boiling water. While still a high-temperature heating method, it’s cooler than steam. This is ideal for extraction from certain delicate plant bodies such as rose petals. The water remaining after the extraction method is also used and may be referred to as floral water, hydrolysate, or herbal distillate.

Temperature: Medium

Solvent Distillation

Uses industrial compounds like hexane or ethanol to extract similar to distillation except higher heats are not required. This method is ideal for extracting active compounds from low-yielding plants or making fragrances. The solvent is removed through heat-mediated evaporative processes. Less denaturing than steam distillation but still degrades many active biologic compounds. Fine for extracts intended for use as a fragrance but questionable for those meant for consumption.

Temperature: Low to Medium

CO2 Extraction

CO2 extraction uses pressure to extract the active compounds from plants. This produces non-denatured extracts that haven’t been damaged by heat. This method is often used to produce extracts where the physiologic benefits of the plant’s active compounds are retained and when compounds are particularly oily or resinous. CBD oil is one such example. An excellent choice for products meant to be consumed and maximize the retention of active biologics.

Temperature: Low

Maceration

This extraction method is most-aligned with the traditional methods using mortar, pestle, and hand-made solvents (menstruum.) Plant material is ground, crushed, or finely cut and then place into a container with the menstruum. The mixture is then allowed to sit for a period of time, often a matter of weeks, while the menstruum pulls out active compounds from the plant. This mixture is then pressed and strained to recover the plant infused menstruum.

Temperature: Low

Enfleurage

The traditional extraction process that uses purified vegetable or animal fats to extract active biological components. Leaves, flowers, or other plant parts are placed on a bed of fat such as lard or tallow. These parts are pressed into the fat and left for a few days at which point they are replaced for fresh plant parts. The fat extracts the active constituent parts of the plants. Afterward, alcohol is used to separate the fat from the extract. Enfleurage Extraction can be done at high or lower temperatures.

Temperature: Low-High

Cold Press Extraction

This method involves the mechanical disruption of fruit, flowering bodies, stems, or other parts of the plant to release active constituents. These released portions, along with the remaining plant material, is mechanically pressed to squeeze out the active parts. The result is then placed in a centrifuge where the oil and juices can be siphoned away from the remaining plant parts. Commonly used to produce nut and seed oils.

Temperature: Low-High

Organic & Non-GMO Ingredients

Products carrying an organic certification help assure consumers of quality. Certified Organic products are free of most synthetic pesticides, GMO materials, and irradiated ingredients.

The science to support the direct health benefits of such ingredients isn’t conclusive. Nonetheless, I’m a strong advocate of buying the cleanest and least de-natured product possible.

cGMP & Quality Assurance

Similar considerations should be given when buying essential oils as that given when buying dietary supplements. The FDA maintains a list of guidelines, known as the cGMP, to help direct manufacturers’ quality assurance and production quality programs.

It’s important to recognize these guidelines are requirements prior to selling products. A company can be, and they often are, cited for cGMP violations only after reports of issues are filed. The FDA does not require manufacturing facilities to pass an inspection before a companies products arrive on shelves.

Buying from companies that are NSF Registered GMP help assure product quality. This is just touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to considerations for health-related product quality. For a deeper look, check out the Buyer’s Guide for Dietary Supplements. There you’ll find a detailed discussion of different certifications, industry regulations, and common issues when selecting a product and/or brand.

Review

Essential oils powerful extracts that often carry well-documented health benefits. The means by which they are produced, stored, and distributed can greatly influence final product quality.

Extraction methods are among the most important decisions when it comes to essential oil quality. Assure your products are of the highest quality by buying from essential oil brands that use the best-suited extraction methods for a particular herb.

In many ways, finding a quality essential oil is a lot like finding a quality dietary supplements. Certifications like Non-GMO, USDA Certified Organic, and NSF Registered GMP are all relevant and indicators of higher quality.